This reading group guide for The Legacy includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Kirsten Tranter
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. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book. INTRODUCTION
Julia, a student at Sydney University, is struggling with her unrequited love for her best friend, Ralph, when his recently orphaned cousin Ingrid is taken into his household. Ralph falls unhappily in love with beautiful Ingrid, but Ingrid leaves Australia for New York after she comes into a large inheritance and marries the charismatic but sinister Gil Grey, an art dealer and father to child art prodigy Fleur. On September 11 she has an appointment downtown and is never seen again.
A year later, Julia Alpers travels to New York at the request of her friend Ralph to search for answers about Ingrid’s last days. As Julia moves through the worlds of art and academia, peeling away the layers of mystery surrounding Ingrid—Ralph’s cousin and their mutual friend—she finds herself drawn into a puzzling and possibly dangerous web of secrets.
Alternating between Julia, Ingrid, and Ralph’s college days in Sydney and post-9/11 New York, The Legacy
is a thrilling novel about love and friendship, lies and deceit.QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. “We just seemed to love each other instantly, though evidently not in the same way” (p. 131), Julia says of herself and Ralph. Discuss the dynamics of their friendship. Why does she remain friends with him despite the heartache it brings her? How does Ingrid’s arrival alter Ralph and Julia’s relationship?
2. What is Julia’s first impression of Ingrid? How do her feelings about Ingrid change over the course of their friendship and then after Ingrid’s presumed death? While in New York looking into Ingrid’s life, why does Julia feel that she isn’t “quite entitled to this position of grieving, intimate friend” (p. 63)?
3. The Prologue is the only part of The Legacy
told from Ingrid’s viewpoint. How did this influence your reading of the story and your perception of Ingrid? What are your thoughts about Julia as a narrator?
4. During a dinner party on a previous visit to New York, Julia sees Maeve and Grey exchange a look in regard to Ingrid. “It was conspiratorial in a quiet, understated way” (p. 12). What does Julia interpret from this look? How does it affect her opinion of Maeve and, especially, of Grey?
5. Why do you suppose the author chose 9/11 as the day of Ingrid’s disappearance? What is your opinion of her portrayal of that tragic day and its aftereffects?
6. Discuss the mystery aspect of the storyline. Do you agree with Julia’s conclusions about Ingrid’s real fate? What evidence does she have to prove her theory? Is Ingrid justified in her choices? Why or why not?
7. “It turned out that I was good at taking things in a way that people didn’t notice, and good at not giving myself away on the occasions when they did. It became a rare event as I grew older” (p. 21), Julia admits. Why does Julia steal things from the people close to her? What does this inclination reveal about her?
8. “In all the places and scenes of my life I saw myself having drifted slowly to the margins,” Julia says. “But I wanted my part in it to be finished, for the script to change” (p. 406–407). In what ways does Julia change throughout the course of the novel? What important things does she discover about herself?
9. Near the end of the story, Julia speaks with Ralph to update him on her findings in New York. “‘I’m all finished with Ingrid,’ I said. And with you, I thought—feeling treacherous, proud, sad, relieved” (p. 410). Why does Julia finally break her emotional ties to Ralph? Is she better off? Why or why not?
10. “We all have our secrets” (p. 336), Trinh tells Julia. What secrets do the various characters harbor? Why does Julia decide not to tell anyone about her suspicions regarding what really happened to Ingrid? Why does she keep it from Ralph in particular?
11. Why does Julia choose to stay in New York rather than return to Sydney? What do you think the future holds for her, romantically and otherwise? How about for Ingrid and Ralph?ENHANCE YOUR BOOK CLUB
1. The Legacy
was partly inspired by Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady
. Read the classic tale and discuss it along
with The Legacy,
or follow Julia and Ralph’s lead and
watch the movie version.
2. Visit a museum or art gallery, or host your meeting at a museum café.
3. Have your tea leaves read, like Mrs. Bee does for Julia in the novel. Or serve tea at your book club gathering and have members try their hand at tea-leaf reading, following the instructions at www.tasseography.com.A CONVERSATION WITH KIRSTEN TRANTERWhat prompted you to begin writing a novel? What sparked the idea for The Legacy?The Legacy
is inspired at heart by my experience of living in two cities that I love, Sydney and New York, and by my interest in the complexities of friendship. I have long been fascinated by Henry James’s novel The Portrait of a Lady,
which has a notoriously unhappy ending, and I’ve always thought about writing my own version of the story that challenges that ending. This was a vague idea for a long time, but in the middle of 2003 it came together in my mind with an idea for a story about 9/11. At the time I had recently moved back to Australia to join my husband while he did his fieldwork in the far north, and I was feeling quite a bit exiled from the cities that I considered home, so this sense of nostalgia probably permeates the story. But I was trying to write a dissertation on English Renaissance poetry, so I put the novel idea on the back burner for a while. In 2007 I was awarded an Emerging Writer’s Grant from the Literature Board of the Australia Council for the Arts, and this inspired me to finish my PhD and complete the novel.The Legacy has echoes of The Portrait of a Lady, from a character who receives an unexpected inheritance to her cousin, Ralph, who has a serious health condition. Is The Legacy an homage to Henry James’s classic novel?
Yes, but at the same time the story stands on its own terms—it is not at all necessary to know Portrait
in order to understand or enjoy The Legacy. I borrow from Henry James and from other authors too—there is a big debt to mystery author Raymond Chandler and other favorite writers including Edith Wharton, Evelyn Waugh, and Donna Tartt. I think that all art is created from a mix of original ideas and debts to other artworks or artists, and I’ve always been drawn to forms of art that make this explicit. In the Renaissance, for instance, there were very different ideas about originality and authors created their own stories by imitating and borrowing freely from the classics and their own contemporaries. Something about this frame of mind is very appealing to me and had a big impact on my own writing.An element of mystery draws readers through the story, as Julia searches for clues about Ingrid’s life in New York and what ultimately happened to her. What mystery books or authors have inspired you?
I love reading mysteries, especially classics like Dorothy L. Sayers, and contemporary authors Ian Rankin and P. D. James. Tana French is a new favorite. Raymond Chandler has a special place in my heart—I just love the terse poetry of his style and his brilliantly evoked settings. He understood that the mystery story is capable of being a form of art like any other kind of literature. The Big Sleep,
his first novel, is a big inspiration for me and I love the film version by the eccentric Howard Hawks.
Henry James is underrated as a mystery writer—The Turn of the Screw
is a brilliant mystery. The Legacy
isn’t a traditional
Julia is put in the position of a private investigator
but she is very ambivalent about embracing that role.Did you always intend for Julia to be the narrator? What would you like readers to know about Julia?
Yes. Ingrid is the center of attention everywhere she goes, the beautiful and brilliant one, and Julia is the observer, the marginal one. I was interested in telling this story from a marginal point of view, to give a perspective on Ingrid that was slightly critical and definitely ambivalent. This allowed me to explore some of the aspects of friendship that are interesting to me, the sides that are hardest to admit or talk about—the way that moments of envy and resentment can sit side by side with other feelings of affection and attachment, the complexity of those feelings that are just as complicated and passionate in many cases as romantic love. And Julia’s journey in the book as I see it is to go from feeling like a marginal character in her own life, not really owning it, to a position where she is ready to start taking more control of her own destiny.
It was important to me to retell James’s story from a different perspective, to make it my own, and telling the story from Julia’s point of view is an important part of that.
Julia has no real parallel in The Portrait of a Lady
. She was inspired by a minor character in The Big Sleep,
a witty bookstore assistant who flirts with Marlowe, the detective.What can you tell us about the mysterious Mrs. Bee, who makes quite an impression on Julia? Have you had your tea leaves read and, if so, what were some of the predictions?
I’m ashamed to say I never have had my tea leaves read, although I suppose I really should! I became fascinated with the practice while I was writing The Legacy,
but only in an abstract way. It relates to a theme of the book, the idea that our perceptions of reality are very subjective, and while people have a longing to know the truth about life, about other people, about the future, this desire is often very complicated—we see what we want to see in the shape of the leaves just as we struggle to interpret all the complex and confusing aspects of life. You see this too in the mysterious photographs that are at the center of the mystery in The Legacy
—the meaning of something as seemingly objective as a photograph can actually be quite unstable, or impenetrable.
Mrs. Bee is an all-knowing figure, a bit of a wise woman, and is a kind of anchor for Julia in New York. She’s always there, at home, guarding the gates, as it were. New York is full of these wise old eccentrics. She’s not based on anyone I know, though.What appealed to you about using dual settings in the novel, your hometown of Sydney and New York City, where you lived for a number of years?
There are wonderful things about living in two different places, but one of the effects is to create a feeling of permanent exile— when I’m in Sydney I miss New York, when I’m in New York I’m terribly homesick for Sydney. I conceived the story of The Legacy
in Darwin, far away from both those places, and wrote most of it in Ithaca, New York, where I lived between 2007– 2009. I visited New York City often during that time. Being away from those places I love meant that I imagined them with a lot of intensity. Writing about Sydney and New York was in some ways a method of coping with homesickness. I think a lot of readers outside Australia might not be used to Australian fictional settings that are contemporary or urban, so I hope The Legacy
creates a picture of Sydney that comes alive for readers who don’t know the city—and also for those who do.You were residing in New York on September 11, 2001. Did this influence your decision to have that tragic day be a central aspect in the storyline?
I was living downtown at the time so I was relatively close to the events. The story doesn’t represent my own experience of 9/11, but on some level writing the book was part of processing the experience and thinking about how the city and the lives of people living there were changed. It’s true that 9/11 is a central aspect of the story, but the book is not “about” 9/11 in any straightforward way. I didn’t lose any friends in the events of 9/11, but like everyone else in New York my life was affected profoundly simply by being there at the time. One thing I’ll never forget is the number of Missing Person posters and leaflets pasted up on the streets downtown by friends and relatives
of the people who died in the attack on the Twin Towers— those posters stayed up for such a long time. The persistence of hope that those posters embodied—the refusal to accept the horrible truth—is the thing that connected 9/11 in my mind with The Portrait of a Lady
and created the bones of this story. I return to the end of Portrait
from time to time, wondering if I’ve missed some vital clue, wanting to it to end differently— but it never does. It’s that desire for the story to end differently that I wanted to connect with in The Legacy,
rather than simply writing my own ending.
I did lose two friends during the time I was writing The Legacy,
both in separate, tragic accidents—the book is dedicated
to them—and this imbued my writing with the experience of
losing friends and coping with the complexities of grief.Julia and Ralph first bond over a love of movies. What are some of your favorite films?
I have pretty eclectic tastes in film as in literature, as readers will probably guess from the video store scenes in The Legacy. The Big Sleep
tops the list—the crazy twists and turns in the story and the sheer beauty of the film complete the effect of a strange, stylish, violent, noir dream that the book also has. I love all those John Hughes/Molly Ringwald films from the 1980s, especially The Breakfast Club
and Pretty in Pink.
It’s easy to laugh at the clichés of those movies but I’ve always taken them seriously as well—I think they are really powerful representations of the intensity of feeling and experience that characterizes adolescence. The characters in The Legacy
are still growing out of that state of being. I’m a huge fan of Hitchcock—all his Cary Grant movies, and Vertigo
. Right now I’m rewatching one of my favorite shows ever, the 1979 BBC TV series of John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy
. The only movie I own is Notting Hill,
and I watch it at least a couple of times a year. It never fails to make me laugh and cry.Two intriguing aspects of the book are the curse scrolls Julia was studying at Columbia University and Richard’s handwriting analysis. Are these things that you had an interest in prior to writing The Legacy, or did you learn about them while writing the novel?
I think it was learning about the curse tablets that really inspired me to write The Legacy
—the novel was originally titled The Curse Tablets
. I wish I had found a bigger role for them in the story but my writing about them ended up being just too academic sounding. They are absolutely fascinating to me. They represent for me the magical power of writing, which I think of by extension as the magical power of stories, to affect our lives. Anyone whose life has been changed by reading or hearing a story will understand this, especially women. Stories can empower us, inspire us or, in bad cases, reinforce negative ideas; they can be instruments of ideology or resistance or, strangely enough, both. I haven’t ever been able to decide whether The Portrait of a Lady
is a cautionary tale warning women about the dangers of pride or a sophisticated reflection on the evils of patriarchy. I’m sure it is both, and something more as well. I suppose that by rewriting The Portrait of a Lady
I am trying to write a kind of countercurse against whatever malevolent power it might exert.
Handwriting analysis is one of those things like tea-leaf reading that sparked my curiosity because it promises to tell you the truth, but depends on such subjective (and bizarre) methodology. In The Legacy
it is another vehicle for thinking about the revelatory power of writing, and our superstitions about it. I thought about putting more weight on the question of Ingrid’s note in her diary for 9/11, to explore this idea in more detail, but in the end it worked out to be more of a quirk in Richard’s character.What details can you share about the novel you’re currently working on?
The novel I’m currently working on shares some themes with The Legacy
. It centers on a group of friends in their early thirties who have grown apart since college, and the complicated feelings and secrets that hold them together and eventually push them apart when a crisis arrives. The friends are all men, so it’s an interesting challenge for me, imagining the particular dynamics of male friendships.